© Copyright 2005 by Tom Snyder, Ph.D.
Great works of art pleasing to God are those works that deftly and subtly combine the moral and spiritual truths of God with His beauty. In examining a work of art to see if it approaches this divine standard (very few, if any, works of art attain God’s holy perfection), we must ask ourselves if the positive moral, spiritual, and aesthetic qualities in the work ultimately transcend any imperfections we may detect within it.
Some Christian critics, however, think of works of art primarily as didactic (teaching), formulaic opportunities to spread their own, often limited, understanding of the Word of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In effect, they set up a man-made, legalistic, lifeless system of authoritarian rules by which they can browbeat the artist and his work into submission.
Ironically, the Marxist, feminist and politically correct humanist critics and academic elites who run most of our literature, theater, and film departments in college are often guilty of doing the same thing, but for ideologies opposing Christianity.
How joyless, how soulless, and how empty must be the lives of these neo-fascist, misguided would-be dictators!
Great art cannot be limited by these kinds of Didactic Fallacies. Great art can be either didactic and explicit or indirect and implicit. It can also be both directly moralistic and indirectly moralistic, and both concrete and abstract. To limit the greatness of art to only the didactic and the concrete, however, is to deprive art of its humanity and, ultimately, its divine power.
For example, a symbolic, allegorical work like the 2004 film version of The Phantom of the Opera can be just as Christian, just as great, and just as divinely inspirational and beautiful as a didactic work like the 2003 film version of The Gospel of John. In the first, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is expressed implicitly in the form of a symbolic parable, or metaphorical narrative. In the second, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is expressed in the form of a great theological essay on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ with drama, which is just what the New Testament’s presentation of “The Gospel of John” is.
Thus, both films can produce a greater increase in man’s understanding of God and/or man’s love of God. But, to prefer one over the other because one is explicit and didactic but the other is implicit and indirect as well as allegorical is to distort and mock the art and science of aesthetics (values, especially in this case, art) and hermeneutics (interpretation).
This does not necessarily mean, of course, that both films succeed equally at what they are trying to do. It does mean, however, that the Christian critic should never create a false dichotomy between great works of art that are didactic and explicit and other works of art that equally great but “merely” allegorical, symbolic, metaphorical, and implicit.
After all, the Word of God itself has both didactic, explicit passages and passages that are implicit, metaphorical, symbolic, and figurative.
Take Orson Welles’ classic movie Citizen Kane.
Looking at the surface content of the movie, Citizen Kane seems to be a Neo-Marxist work exposing the evils of capitalism. Thus, Charles Foster Kane, the heir to a massive gold fortune and owner of a vast media chain, is corrupted by his quest for power, to the point where he has driven all his loved ones away from him.
In the climactic scene to the movie, however, the anonymous reporter investigating Kane’s life clearly states that one word cannot sum up a man’s whole life. The reporter adds that the meaning behind Kane’s last mysterious word before he died, “Rosebud,” is like a missing piece to the jigsaw puzzle that was Charles Foster Kane. And, indeed, when we look at the rest of the movie, we find that, all along, Orson Welles has been telling us that Charles Foster Kane is a complex man whose life cannot be summed up by Neo-Marxist slogans – or Christian and capitalist slogans, for that matter.
Thus, the didactic Marxist, the didactic Christian and the didactic capitalist all would be wrong if they pigeonholed Citizen Kane by renouncing it as a flawed ideological work or, perhaps even worse, adopting it as a brilliant ideological work that fit into a convenient, cozy little didactic formula. As a result, not only would the true meaning of Citizen Kane be lost within their narrow didactic frameworks, but the true beauty of the film also would be lost.
Sadly, this is just what the didactic Christian critic wants us to do with Citizen Kane, and a whole host of movies that don’t fit a narrow, blatant definition of the Christian worldview. In other words, the Christian critic who commits the Didactic Fallacy not only has a false, ungodly view of art, he also has adopted a false, ungodly method that results in a terrible heresy, the Heresy of Legalism. In the end, such a heresy divides the Word of God in two, and ultimately tears asunder the divine unity of God’s holy character. It also distorts the meaning of God’s Grace.
Such didactic critics must be very careful in how they judge a work of art, lest they also become guilty of committing the Reductive Fallacy. On the other hand, critics who dismiss the didactic aspect of art are guilty of confusion and the Heresy of Antinomianism, or Lawlessness. For example, some Christians have uncritically endorse the Harry Potter books, because the books are heroic, sometimes redemptive and help encourage children to read. All these positive things may indeed be true, but the Harry Potter books also promote witchcraft, talking to the dead, divination, and other evil occult practices that the Bible explicitly condemns.
Even so, all of us must live the great biblical truth behind Ephesians 2:8-10, that we are not saved by works, but we are saved by the Grace of God through Faith. Like the human beings who make them, works of art do not become great, or attain salvation, according to whether they are implicit or explicit, or whether they make a great show of obedience to God before men or obey God in more indirect ways. No. They become great when they reflect, in some potent fashion, the beautiful Light of God’s Grace and Love.
As Paul says in 1 Cor. 13, God’s love does not keep a record of wrongs. Nor does it insist on its own way or delight in evil. It does, however, always protect, always trust, always hope, and always persevere.
If a work of art can express these and other Christian truths in any kind of fashion, no matter how poorly, we should praise it and thank God for it. We should not judge it on whether the work is explicit or implicit, didactic or non-didactic, for that is a fruitless exercise which can only make Christians look ignorantly narrowminded. It is just as likely to drive away the unbeliever, including the unbelieving artist, rather than entice him into Christ’s sheepfold of salvation, much in the same way as Samwise Gamgee does when he is cruel toward Gollum in Tolkien’s great non-didactic work, The Lord of the Rings. As Christ himself warned us, “Judge not lest ye be judged.”
In Summary, in its own way, the 2004 movie version of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s The Phantom of the Opera is just as great a work of art as the 2003 movie The Gospel of John, if not even better. It is not “too dark,” as a couple of misguided, ill-informed Christians vaguely once told me. And, Citizen Kane remains one of the greatest movies ever made. Even though Citizen Kane does not specifically mention the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the film is a brilliant exposition of the vagaries of human love and the nature of the human condition. As such, it provides a wonderful glimpse into the true nature of God’s love and God’s truth.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Snyder has a Ph.D. in film studies from Northwestern University, where he also studied comparative religion and hermeneutics, and has done post-graduate studies in theology, philosophy, hermeneutics, and Christian apologetics at Simon Greenleaf University, the Christian Research Institute, the Southern California Center for Christian Studies, and Answers in Action. He is also the author of Myth Conceptions (Baker Books, 1995) and co-author of Frodo & Harry (Crossway Books, 2003).